When finding people is public service

TOPSHOT – Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent Greek wildfires led to many terrible tragedies, none worse than that experience by the Philippopoulou family. The parents left their twin daughters with their grandparents and went away for a couple of days break only to have the willies sweep through the village near Mati in Eastern Attica. For Yiannis Philippopoulou, the knowledge that his daughters and parents had almost certainly perished was challenged when CCTV footage of a boat carrying people from a nearby beach appeared to show two little girls, hand in hand, who could have been his daughters Sophia and Vassiliki. The family hired a private detective who was able to discover that in fact the twins had died in the arms of their grandparents and the little girls seen on the boat where the children of another family. While this is distressing for every body concerned, the work of the private detective saved the family from false hope and has allowed them to grieve with dignity.

Bitcoin detectives on the case

Satoshi Nakamoto, the name used by bitcoin’s founder, is a mystery. Bitcoin itself has gone from being a wild success to having around $400 billion has been wiped off its value along with other major cryptocurrencies since the beginning of 2018. The pseudonym appears to be Japanese but Satoshi Nakamoto’s own writing appears to be fluently English and his software was never registered in Japan. Now a number of bitcoin supporters have launched a fundraising campaign to find the originator particularly to find out why bitcoin went wrong, and whether the collapse of the crypto-currency market was a planned global fraud. Private detectives from Japan, Russia, the UK and the USA are planned to be involved in the search for Satoshi who is believed to have enough bitcoin in his wallet to make him the 52 richest man in the world.

So it’s a big question – two questions really. Who is Satoshi Nakamoto (lots of people have claimed to be him, just as many have denied they are!) and what has he done with the vast virtual fortune that he possesses? It’s enough virtual currency to destabilise the entire crypto currency economy and many people believe Satoshi intended exactly that all along. Several governments are interested in finding Satoshi too, including the Australian government which is watching with interest a private case of fraud and forgery being brought against one claimant.

What is ghosting?

Ghosting – it’s a missing persons experience that 80% of millennials will have experienced. While it can sound a little lightweight, being ghosted can have profound psychological effects on the vicim. What is ghosting? It’s when somebody you’ve been having an intense relationship with, often mainly or exclusively online, simply disappears without warning and leaves no trace. There are several reasons for ghosting:

  1. The other person is in a relationship already and got found out
  2. The other person has been trying to scam you for money/your identity
  3. The other person has been scamming you for intimate photographs/video
  4. The other person was never real.

So what are the warning signs of ghosting? Our experienced missing persons investigators have a checklist that may help:

  • If you’re always calling/texting/messaging first – beware! Some people are just lazy about staying in touch but if you’re doing 90% of the work and it wasn’t always that way, it’s quite likely that you’re about to be ghosted.
  • If they cut short meetings or calls – take note! This is usually a sign that they are already in another relationship, and if it gets too difficult to fit you in, they may disappear, leaving you wondering what happened.
  • If they change their phone number – it’s a big warning bell ringing! One of the most common signs of a disappearing act is that the person you’re involved with will tell you they have a new phone number. What they are actually doing is getting you off their main phone so that when they vanish, you’ll never thing to go back to their old number and find out that they are still alive and well and in touch with everybody except you.
  • When they come up with far-fetched excuses – get worried! If somebody starts having a lot of accidents, car breakdowns, having to stay late at work or being involved in public transport snarl ups, it’s often a sign that they are incapable of telling you they don’t want to see you. Instead they say yes, but never actually show up.

When ghosting happens, private investigators often get called in because the victim believes their must have been foul play. Very often we find the ‘ghost’ is still thriving and simply didn’t have the guts to end the relationship decently but sometimes we also discover that they have taken their victim for a ride, obtaining money or intimate photos that they then use in ways that would never have been agreed to. Fortunately we’re also often able to regain property and to make clear to the ghost that if they continue in their action they will face criminal proceedings which usually puts a stop to their activities, at least as far as our clients are concerned.

When missing persons are a criminal matter

Most of the time National Person Finder is hired to find somebody who’s gone missing out of stress, breakdown or mental health issues. But sometimes we have to track down individuals who have gone missing as part of a wider criminal case. Interestingly, a new scam from the USA has arrived on the shores of the UK. It’s called ‘buddy punching’ and it’s a form of theft that can cost employers thousands of pounds.

At its simplest it involves one employee using the clock-in system to suggest their colleagues are working when they aren’t. Point Of Sale technology such as codes and id cards for tills and iPads can be used in a similar fashion to earn people hours of work when they haven’t actually been in at all that day. It’s a fraud that is increasingly prevalent. National Person Finder has recently completed a case where, by using undercover operatives both as customers and temporary employees, and obtaining video evidence, we were able to prove that a large fraud scheme was operating in a major warehouse, costing the business substantial profits. The scam is often perpetrated by groups of young people who live and work together and as a result are easily able to ‘earn’ their friends a few hours extra pay by logging in with their till code when making sales or by using their card-key to check in and out of the workplace. Hotels and warehouses are most at risk of this scam.

When missing persons abscond with a fortune

The Punjab National Bank has been forced to hire private detectives who specialise in tracking down fugitives. And the reason is that two of their high profile clients – Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi – ran off, leaving the back massively in debt. Bad loans of nearly £1.5 billion stayed behind, putting the PNB in a difficult position. The two runaways were diamond merchants, and they hobnobbed with Prime Ministers and Bollywood stars, as can be seen in our photograph of Mehul Choksi and Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu, but apparently their businesses were bogus and the loans on which they defaulted appear to have been their major source of income! Private detective agencies are equipped to track not only the missing persons but also their assets which might help the red-faced bank get out of the red!

Most missing persons don’t run off with a fortune, but it’s quite common for criminals to abscond with property such as other people’s cars and jewellery. Where fraud or other other criminal activity has been involved, we make sure that we make every effort to track down those assets and return them to their rightful owners. It’s all part of the service.

Missing persons cases that never end

National Person Finder knows how distressing it can be to have a family member go missing. For two Dutch families there has been no resolution to the disappearance of men who went missing 44 years ago. The two men went out for a drink together in Deurne, Holland, forty-four years ago this week and were never seen again. While police always believed the men had been killed, they had no information on which to proceed, having discovered no sightings of either of the men or their car.

A recent reinvestigation by a Dutch missing persons bureau has resulted in the suggestion of a large reservoir in nearby Liessel which is now being dredged to see if the men’s vehicle may have been dumped there. A police spokesperson confirmed that ‘Missing persons cases don’t have a deadline.’ We can only agree – for the families left behind, the only resolution will be when their loved one is found, dead or alive.

Missing Brit sought in Hamburg

Liam Colgan of Inverness has been missing since 10 February where he was helping his brother Eammon celebrate his imminent marriage. Last seen that evening, new CCTV footage has shown Liam outside a building where on the steps and was helped up by a passer by who describes seeing Liam fail to succeed in entering the building and heading off towards the Michelwiese Park where the same witness helped him enter the park. His family are now asking for any further sightings or for people who were out and about in Hamburg night to check photographs they may have taken after 2am to see if Liam might be in the background. A body found in the River Elbe in late February has been confirmed as not being that of the missing British man.

Where alcohol is involved in a missing person’s case, it complicates matters greatly because people act very differently when drunk – this means that there are few predictors to their behaviour and any missing persons investigation has to be conducted on a completely open basis, rather than using information about the individuals usual behaviour, preferences and actions. In such situations, local police may be at a loss because they don’t have the resources to undertake the kind of inch-by-inch, minute-by-minute research that can reveal the movements of a person who has unexpectedly gone missing.

When missing people are ‘found’ and when they aren’t

It’s been a harrowing few months for Olivia Newton John after it was claimed that her missing ex partner Patrick McDermott had been discovered on a campsite in Mexico. McDermott, who went missing over 12 years ago, owed a substantial amount of child support payments when he disappeared on a fishing trip off the San Pedro coast. For a couple of months the story ran and ran, rehashing the disappearance of McDermott over the side of a fishing vessel although not one of the other 22 passengers saw him go overboard. Several high level pundits concluded that it was definitely McDermott who was shirtless in the grainy photographs and speculated about who the mystery woman was beside him and the paparazzi got into trying to doorstep Ms Newton John as she went on tour.

Then … Wes Stobbe, a Canadian publican, came forward to say that it was him in the long-distance photographs and that the woman he was ‘lounging beside’ was actually his wife Bridget. “Apparently if you make the photo fuzzy enough and grainy enough, it might be passable, but I don’t think I look like him,” Mr Stobbe told a Canadian radio station.

The point here is that a lot of unnecessary heartache and confusion has been created by an unconfirmed identification of a missing person. When National Person Finder undertakes a missing person case, our professional team ensure they have a lot more than a long-distance photograph on which to base an identification and certainly would never go public until they’d absolutely confirmed that they’d located a missing loved one.

The cost of finding a missing person

In a sad story, the only new development in the case of the missing RAF serviceman Corrie McKeague has been a Freedom of Information request into the cost of the investigation. So far, it’s an astonishing £2 million. Gunner McKeague went missing in September 2016 after a night out with friends in Bury St Edmunds. Since then police officers have spent 34,000 hours on the case. The bills are being paid out of the budget held by Norfolk and Suffolk’s joint Major Investigation team.

While the costs are stunningly high, it’s purely because the case has a security implication that the powers-that-be are willing to expend so much time and money. The parents of most young people who go missing in the UK would be lucky to get eight man-hours spent on the investigation because trying to find missing persons is often a low priority consideration for police services which know that a certain proportion of missing people will be working hard not to be found, while a small proportion will have been the victim of a crime.

This is where National Person Finder comes in – our cost-effective missing person services can provide peace of mind to the families and friends of a person who has disappeared and our rapid response to a missing person case means that we often resolve the problem long before it becomes an expensive cold case.

An international epidemic of missing persons

It might sound like a strange claim but disappearing has become commonplace. The strain this places on public services is immense – it’s the equivalent of a call to the emergency services every 90 seconds about a missing person.

For the families of those who go missing the pain is also immense and unending – in fact for many families the more time that passes, the more difficult they find their situation. Given that one in five of the people who go missing has a mental health issue, it’s not surprising that friends and families struggle so badly.

Some missing persons cases end rapidly and happily – Weston lifeboat crew was right in the middle of an ice-skating fundraiser when they were called out, along with two coastguard teams, to help the police locate a high-risk missing person. Within an hour that person had been found, largely thanks to the fact that an unusually large number of coastguards were in the right place at the right time. In other cases, decades can pass without news. In one of the saddest cases we’ve come across a woman who went missing 42 years ago in New York has been found living in sheltered accommodation in Massachusetts. Nobody knows what happened to Flora Stevens who went missing in 1975 after her husband dropped her off at a doctor’s appointment, but she was discovered after an online search revealed a woman called Flora Harris was using her social security number. Because Flora has dementia there is no way of discovering what prompted her disappearance and sadly, her husband passed away in 1985 without ever seeing her again.

Private detectives and missing persons

If the police receive a missing persons call every minute and a half, it’s hardly surprising they struggle to commit to every case. For many families, finding a private detective agency that has specialist experience in locating missing persons is the swiftest way to assure themselves that everything possible is being done to find their loved one. It’s more than a little astonishing that despite several cold case reviews, it was purely by accident that Flora Stevens was discovered. One of the first places that any reputable private detective will begin their work is in checking whether a person’s NI number, passport or other ID have been used. It doesn’t guarantee that a missing person has been found but it’s a fundamental first step that can be time-consuming which is why it takes a dedicated private investigator to explore every avenue so that leads can be narrowed down and so that a missing person can be reunited with their family.

National Person Finder and how to locate a missing person

What makes National Person Finder so special? It’s our unique focus on finding people who have gone missing – rather than on undertaking every kind of private detective work going. This is a vital consideration when you’re looking for somebody who has vanished, particularly if they have been missing for some time.

For example, when Ariane Lak disappeared, it took her family a considerable period of time to realise she was missing, simply because fifty-year-old Ariane, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, had been in the process of moving from one hotel in Milan to another, and as a result there was little concern when she wasn’t in touch for a while. By the time they did discover the problem, the trail had gone cold. For Ariane Lak, the private detective who discovered her sleeping rough on the streets of Milan, was a timely intervention as it appears she may have been the victim of an assault in which she hit her head and which appears to have affected her memory.

Missing persons – how to re-start a cold case

In such cases, organisations like National Person Finder have to retrace the last known movements of the person who has gone missing but also take a complete case history of the individual to establish likely places for them to go and uncover patterns of behaviour that could put the private investigator back on the trail.

It’s rare for the police to have the resources to put into missing persons cases where there has been a long gap between the person’s disappearance and its reporting, but a dedicated firm of specialist investigators like National Person Finder is experienced in locating people whose disappearance has been complicated by a gap in time.

When finding a missing person isn’t the end of the story

Sometimes people don’t want to be found, and in many cases the work of NPF is over when we make our complete and confidential report to the client who has hired us to find a missing person. On other occasions it may be necessary to do more than establish a location – people who have stepped out of their lives often have complex problems that require more than just a report and our dedicated investigators are able to offer support and guidance to those whose family members or friends have gone missing.

So if you’re looking for a team of private investigators with truly specialist skills in finding missing persons and in helping their clients to work out the best next steps to take, look no further than National Person Finder, the UK’s foremost organisation for locating people who have gone missing.

When is a missing person not a missing person?

The answer is when they’re a case of mistaken or stolen identity.

While most of our cases at National Personal Finder involve families or friends trying to locate a missing person, we are increasingly being hired to investigate cases of stolen identity, especially where these cases involve ‘catfishing’ – the theft of an identity to entice other people to send money based on a fake romantic relationship.

A recent high profile case has brought some of the murky practices of catfishing into the public eye. When Matt Peacock, a male fashion model, began to receive phone calls from women claiming they had been dating him online, his only way of finding out what was going on was to hire a private detective agency to help him.

Often the first time that people know they’ve been catfished is when their online romance simply disappears. From being intimately involved with a man or women, often sending explicit photos and money for air tickets so their love interest can visit, they find themselves alone, with their lover’s online profile having disappeared and addresses and phone numbers leading nowhere. That’s when they contact us – to help them find the missing person they had learned to love.

Matt Peacock’s case led to the discovery that more than forty fake profiles had been set up on dating sites, using his photographs and false names. Some of the women had sent intimate photos and videos to their supposed romantic interest. In these cases, which are very distressing to the victims, the perpetrators aren’t actually breaking the law because – unlike classic catfishers – they aren’t trying to make money from the stolen identity.

Matt Peacock is now trying to force a change in the law so that people who steal the identities of others and use them to create fake online profiles from which they are not seeking to make a profit, will still be classed as criminals.

When someone goes missing, it can be a criminal matter

This is an unusual case, but we’ve had experience of several missing persons investigations where we’ve discovered that a missing girlfriend, often claiming to be from Eastern Europe or South East Asia, has conned an online boyfriend out of money for visas or airline tickets and not only that, but has replicated the scam hundreds of times across hundreds of platforms. It’s always a shock for their victims to discover that they have been defrauded by a skilled operator who may not even be of the same gender as their profile pictures, but at least they have a resolution to their concerns about their loved one suddenly going missing.

National Person Finder’s Guide to Grooming and Trafficking

This is not a subject that anybody wishes to consider, but recent news stories in the UK and the USA suggest that it’s high time that people were better educated about how these criminal activities work and what relationship they have to missing persons.

People Trafficking in the USA

Fifteen-year-old Sophie Reeder has gone missing from her home in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and private detectives involved in her case are increasingly convinced that she may have been the victim of human trafficking. Girls like Sophie, who is described as ‘very beautiful’ are considered to be at increasing risk from sophisticated grooming and trafficking activities undertaken by organised gangs.

Missing persons and grooming

Both boys and girls are at risk of grooming which can take place in person or online. Our experienced missing persons investigators know that key hotspots for grooming attempts are school gates, parks and playgrounds and transport hubs like bus stops and train stations where students gather. University bars are also a key location for this kind of attempt.

Grooming involves three elements

1. Isolating the young person
2. Building a bond with them (this can take the form of drink or drugs)
3. Establishing power over them – this can be done through coercion or blackmail, through leading the young person to believe they are in love with the groomer.

How does grooming work and is it different to trafficking?

Grooming and trafficking overlap and both can lead to missing persons cases. The first element, isolating a young person, may involve removing them from friends and family so that they cannot find the resources to say no to the groomer. The second point often results from the groomer/trafficker supplying the youngster with drink and drugs to reduce their inhibitions and create a dependence. Often the final stage of establishing power can take the form of creating an addiction or telling the youngster that he or she owes debt, for drugs or travel for example, that can only be paid off by sex work. Forms of sex work that are common and lead to people going missing include web-camming (have sex on camera for a paying audience) and – for girls – club and pole dancing.

When young people go missing

At National Person Finder we sometimes discover that a young person’s disappearance is linked to grooming or sex trafficking – in these cases, sensitive investigation is necessary because organised grooming and people trafficking involves people with large resources and a well-organised way of keeping young people moving so that they can rarely be identified or returned to their families.

Our skilled investigators have been instrumental in restoring missing youngsters to many families and are experienced in the complex process of discovering the whereabouts of missing young people and extracting them from difficult situations.

Who hires a private detective to investigate a missing persons case?

Missing teens – and how to help

One of the most common, and most distressing, incidents for a family is when a teenager goes missing. This rarely happens ‘out of the blue’ although it often feels that way at first. The truth is that many families are the last ones to know about underlying pressures that can cause a young person to feel the need to escape. This can particularly be the case when the pressures are happening inside the family such as when serious illness, job loss or broken relationships are already causing family unrest.

However, experienced private investigators such as those working for National Person Finder are able to retrace the steps, and the stresses experienced by missing teens and may – as a result – be able to discover which bolthole the young person has chosen.

Social media has become a key feature of missing persons cases with youngsters and while well-meaning parents can often try to discover the whereabouts of a missing child, their heavy-handed investigations can alert the teenager and cause them to disappear even more effectively. This is why an anonymous approach, supported by excellent investigative skills, can follow the trail without causing a young person to bolt again. Of course there is no guarantee that a youngster will return home, but effective private investigation can often open a channel of communication that eventually allows a teenager to come back to their family when they are ready.

Dutch detective helps investigate suspicious deaths

The Dutch government has seen a steady decline in the number of autopsies carried out in the Netherlands – in 2005, 617 post mortem investigations were carried out but by 2015 the number had fallen to 279. Dick Gosewehr, a former detective, is working with Leiden-based lawyer Sébas Diekstra and pathologist Frank de Groot, to offer a second opinion on suspicious deaths – and their service is absolutely free. According to the consortium, around 20-25 murders could be going undetected every year. The group has been involved in a number of high-profile ‘mysterious death’ cases including the death of an eighteen-year-old boy found dead beneath a bridge in Belgium and a young woman killed by a train. While both deaths were officially branded suicides, they have both been reclassified to explore the possibility that their deaths were the result of criminal action or actual murder.

Many hundreds of people in the UK every year find themselves unsatisfied with inquest results and feel they have nowhere else to turn – private investigator teams can give these families routes to explore that can help them discover relevant facts about the death of a loved one.